Friday links! Spades are spades, people are jerks edition

It’s been a fairly amazing week at Combat! blog, what with Christine O’Donnell and Ginni Thomas restoring our faith in the human capacity for stunning feats of public dumb. Amidst this epic stupidity, though, we risk forgetting the real defining human quality, the one that animates our daily lives: mendacity. While a couple outliers were garnering all the attention with their reverse phoenix act, thousands of hardworking journalists, political commentators and cardinals were churning out the half-reasoned opinions and appeals to popular prejudice that make the world go ’round. Whether they’re lionizing the dumb for the strength of their numbers, dressing up their bigotry as victimhood or forcibly conforming other people’s fictional worlds to their own, the stars of this week’s link roundup remind us that we can be dim pinpoints of honesty in a vast, formless void of dissembling. Or we could be on TV! The choice is ours to make, and one of the two options is winning in a landslide. Fortunately, we on the losing side have our frustration to console us. Won’t you yell at a screen with me?

First to Slate, which is the well-meaning aunt at the cast party of American political discourse. Timothy Noah has outdone himself this week by calling on Jon Stewart to cancel the Rally to Restore Sanity, on the grounds that “it will translate into…judging other people for what they don’t know.” Noah believes that Stewart’s humor is predicated on mocking extremism and, by extension, ignorance—unlike that of the comedian he cites as a positive counterexample, Will Rogers, who was 41 years old when women were given the right to vote. I find it hard to believe even as I type it, but Noah seems to think that mocking ignorance is unethical, or at least uncool. “There’s still a lot we don’t fully understand about the Tea Partiers and the political independents who have lost faith in Obama,” he writes. “But one thing we should all be pretty clear on by now is that they hate, hate, hate anything that smacks of elitism.” My visceral response is “too bad for you, hateful populists,” but Noah feels differently. His essential contention appears to be that smart people should cancel their rally because it might make the people who went to the ignorant asshole rally feel bad.

Meanwhile, on The O’Reilly Factor, unsubstantiated statements continue to get the respect they deserve. NPR correspondent-turned-analyst-turned-fired-employee Juan Williams went there on Monday, where he thoughtfully considered whether America has a “Muslim dilemma.” After reminding us that he is not a bigot, here’s what he came up with: “[W]hen I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” Actually, Juan Williams, you are identifying those people first and foremost as Muslims. That guy in the dress probably just thinks of himself as Mahmoud. NPR fired Williams, and Fox promptly signed him to a $2 million contract. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, John Boehner and other prominent Republicans have called on Congress to cut off NPR’s funding. Here’s a fun game: watch that episode of The O’Reilly Factor and replace “Muslim” with “Jew.”

It seems that if you want to find people who actually stand behind their professed principles, you have to turn to gay sex advice columnists. Dan Savage published this letter from a Christian who opposes gay marriage, criticizing his It Gets Better campaign for offensively implying that calling homosexuality a sin perpetuate bullying. “If your message is that we should not judge people based on their sexual preference, how do you justify judging entire groups of people for any other reason?” L.R. writes, deploying what is possibly the most tired argument still moving. (“If your message is that we should not judge people based on their ethnic ancestry/physical handicaps/hair color, how do you justify judging…”) Savage’s response is, well, savage, and it says what the last twenty years of American media have tacitly agreed not to say: you cannot oppose gay marriage, call homosexuality a sin and work to enact laws discouraging both while also claiming not to hate gay people. Yes you do. You hate gay people, L.R., which is why you are constantly trying to make laws about them.

But of course organized religion, dealing as it does with matters as weighty as the fate of our eternal souls and discerning the will of god, maintains the highest standards of intellectual honesty. That’s why the Vatican recently announced that Homer Simpson is Catholic. The news may come as a surprise to the creators of that fictional character, or to longtime viewers who have seen the Simpsons regularly attend Springfield’s Presbylutheran church, but according to a Jesuit priest, Bart and Homer converted to Catholicism in a 2005 episode. That’s apparently all it takes for the Church of Rome to make a public statement these days. So far, the Pope has remained silent regarding the episode where Bart is fondled by a priest.

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  1. NPR’s biggest fault here is that it gave a faux reason for firing Williams. They should have said, “We’ve been paying this guy’s salary for X years while he moonlights by periodically auditioning for Fox; and we’re sick of it.”

  2. Well, yes, it is unethical and uncool to mock people who are ignorant. If you’re smart, you must know it’s a cheap-shot that accomplishes nothing. Might feel good for a moment, but that doesn’t make it ethical or cool. It’s a quick way for smart people to avoid dealing concretely with any issue.

    If we’re so cynical that we’ve concluded before the fact that ignorant people can’t be meaningfully engaged, then what the fuck are we supposed to do with them? Hold a rally to mock them louder? Please. Stewart hasn’t taken the high road through an argument (or a joke) since 2006 and I doubt his wink and smirk will carry well across the Mall. I’m sure it’ll be a fun party, but it also makes progressives look less serious about governing than Tea Partiers.

  3. Karl, the rally to restore sanity makes more sense if you remember that the real target of mockery is not the person you’re mocking, but the audience observing. Being mocked by a cleverer opponent has never changed anybody’s opinion, but it has embarrassed and shamed plenty of people badly enough that they either quit the field in humiliation or were subsequently disregarded by their audience. People gave Clarence Darrow crap for pissing all over William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes Trial, but he succeeded in demonstrating that fundamentalist Christians–even famous ones like WJB–often had precious little of the knowledge they claimed to possess.

    The Tea Party is a small minority of stupid people (yelling) who have accrued outsize influence because of credulous media coverage purporting that they represent a Real and Serious trend in American political economy, rather than a transitory movement of reactionary stooges. If embarrassing and shaming such people through mockery causes the media and the population at large to take them less seriously, then it accomplishes quite a bit.

  4. You’re right, Evan. By all means, mock to reveal mendacity and credulity. But the Tea Partiers are hoping to be mocked for their stupidity; it fulfills their own imaginary courtroom showdown scenario. It doesn’t embarrass; it emboldens. We need more debate (more, um, Combat?) and less in-crowd pageantry to survive this moment in history. Liberals take the easy way out when they call someone stupid. Conservatives take the easy way out when they call someone unAmerican.

    If the Stewart rally is supposed to play out in the courtroom of the mass-media attention-span (where the audience, as you conceive of it, is the home viewer and not the rally attendants), then that fight, like the fight to prove one’s intellectual superiority, has also been rigged before the fact. Fox’s coverage is preordained and so is everyone else’s. If the rally is supposed to demonstrate something besides snide imitation: awesome. I hope to be surprised. But right now, I’m not sure how one can *chant* “Mature deliberation!” I will laugh at Jon’s jokes from time to time, but I won’t cheer and rally for them like his studio audience does.

    My attitude here is probably colored by a frustrated longing for some kind of Progressive Imperative — something I thought Obama had the wisdom and charisma to conceive and advance. There is an affirmative, dare I say patriotic, liberalism worth rallying for — something more than mockery. It values intelligence, but not in its weaponized form and not above a more radical compassion. Colbert’s “Keep Fear Alive” campaign hits closer to the mark for me because he’s engaging the emotions that protect the ignorant from knowledge of their condition. Stewart can only call the TP folk insane and, too often, stupid. It’s sad enough that we’re fighting about evolution 80 years after Scopes; but sadder still that we’re using the same weapons to do it.

  5. I would love to know if Savage’s constant prodding of American sexual culture over the years is having a significant effect; he seems to have a large audience over there, no?
    His campaign over the last few weeks to show teenagers that It Gets Better was brilliant. His response to the letter you reference this week was cool too.
    Take heart that the USA is ahead of much of the world on issues of sexual equality; my last few weeks here in the Balkans have reminded me how received, regressive morality and hate can be so much more deeply entrenched in culture.

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